My Paper on The Wire…

by zunguzungu

…was fairly well received, so why not post it? The experience of giving the paper revealed to me that some people have not yet seen to the end of the series, so be warned: this post will spoil the ending by letting you know that Omar gets shot in the fifth season, so if you didn’t know that, you probably don’t want to read it. Frankly, though, if you haven’t seen the whole series yet, that’s your shame, not my problem. Also, the paper I delivered was about 3k words, but this monstrosity is an amped up version of the same, clocking in at a hefty 4800 (all the stuff I took out to get down to the time limit put back in, with interest).

simon“In Withdrawal from Modernity: the Western and the West Side in The Wire”

Last September, David Simon gave a talk here at UC Berkeley entitled the “Audacity of Despair,” and his take-home message was bluntly apocalyptic. Citing Camus and the honor of going down fighting, he told us that his title referred to the need to commit without hope of success, the fact that while the end was predetermined, “you might as well scream about it on the way down.” Most of the criticism on The Wire has more or less taken Simon at his word, seeing The Wire as showing (as Simon put it in an interview with Nick Hornby) “that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.”

It has been, I think, Simon’s pithiest and least nuanced statements about the show that have tended to set the tone for the show’s critical reception. Eliding the broad differences one might draw between “our political and economic and social constructs,” his angry critiques of the failures of “the system” and “institutions” have gotten reproduced in statements like James Poniewozik’s that, for example, “All The Wire‘s characters face the same forces in a bottom-line, low-margin society, whether they work for a city department, a corporation, or a drug cartel.”

It isn’t the pessimism of all this that bothers me, but the reductiveness of it as a reading, its rhetorical insistence that there is no future grounded in a blanket denunciation on all our houses. After all, it almost seems so obvious as to not be worth saying, but there always is a future of some sort; history is a thing that has a way of continuing. And The Wire, ironically, illustrates exactly this fact: the show not only portrays Baltimore from the get-go as a place where the apocalypse has essentially already happened – and life has gone on – but it also aspires to an almost Geertzian thick description of the complex post-apocalyptic social world in which its actors live.

I would say, in fact, that the show’s leitmotif is not foreclosure but continuity, reproduction both social and otherwise. The show is tremendously sensitive to the ways that macro-level institutions and social structures reproduce themselves even while paying careful attention to the compromised agency that is possible in the micro-level social spaces in which individual human beings actually live. If the show dramatizes the ways institutions fail, in other words, and if it focuses on the internal contradictions and crisis-inducing problems that beset late capitalist US – and it certainly does do these things – it also displays a very nuanced interest in how both people and institutions instrumentalize these failures, how crisis becomes a mode of continuing existence, and how people survive and construct new structures out of the ruins of the old. As many examples as we see of the kinds of compromises that dependency forces vulnerable social actors to make, in other words, we see just as many examples of the ways that people construct their own dependencies, however ambiguously.

This is not necessarily a more optimistic picture, of course: Baltimore’s apocalypse is one in which a great many people get left behind. But I start here because there’s something symptomatic about the disconnect between a critical vocabulary in which “the institution” as such comes to stand in for all of society’s ills, and The Wire’s much more subtle exploration of social collapse as an open-ended historical moment, crisis as a moment of historical opening rather than foreclosure. That disconnect, I’ll argue, not only reflects The Wire‘s own internal contradictions, but is a constitutive problem that the show reproduces at the level of its own narrative texture, which I’ll attempt to approach by the question of the show’s genre.

First and foremost, it’s become a cliché to call The Wire the best TV show ever made, but the real thrust of statements like that is the claim that the show has transcended the medium of television; that, in contrast to the mediocrity of TV more generally, The Wire approaches the status of real literature. Such claims, I think, miss the point: if “TV” is being defined by its mediocrity, then calling it the best TV show ever is damningly faint praise, flattening out the complexity of the show’s generic lineage into a simplistic assertion of the show’s quality. In this sense, when the show’s writers and critics have pointed out its affiliation with social realism or American naturalism, the point has generally been simply to establish the show’s credentials as real literature. This isn’t CSI, they tell us; The Wire is Dickensian or muckraking journalism.

Now, critics are not wrong to liken The Wire to the kind of social realism of a Dickens or a Balzac; even The Wire’s form — serial and episodic with a multitude of characters but aiming at producing a unified narrative of a unified social order — is Dickensian in the way it integrate the uniqueness of the part into a synthetic narrative of social totality. And the show can be usefully compared with twentieth century naturalists like Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, or Frank Norris: David Simon is a self-identified muckraker, the show’s aspiration to show “how the other half lives” is a profoundly Riis-ian ambition, and the American tragedy narrative of the show has a great deal in common with a Dreiser or Norris.

But if we bracket off television’s perpetual inferiority complex, it’s worth noting that these generic modes don’t actually describe The Wire very well at all. For one thing, the show’s urban spaces are unquestionably a very different kind of cityscape than Dickens’ London or Balzac’s Paris; as imperial capitols, they could stand in as metonyms for France and Britain at their expansionist peak, the most highly developed capitalist economies in the world. But the Baltimore of The Wire is a city defined by its peripheral isolation, a forgotten city wedged between Philadelphia and DC and left to rot. Its discontents, in other words, are not those of American modernity as a whole; its problem is that it is located, in some ambiguous sense, outside of America (as characters often bitterly remark). In this sense, while The Wire might also share with American naturalism a voyeuristic fascination with those who society has left behind, those turn of the last century novels and journalistic accounts were still basically structured by the telos of modernity and the inevitability of progress: as with Dickens or Balzac, Sinclair or Norris’ worlds were embedded in a capital h History, moving in one direction only.  Progress might have been a terrible thing, as William James put it, but no one doubted that it was coming; history moved forward as inevitably and as remorselessly as fate.

In The Wire, on the other hand, history is moving backwards: the most omnipresent landscape feature is the “vacant,” shuttered up apartments left to rot and ruin, and the corners where drug slingers set up shop are invariably boarded up store fronts. The second season is quite literally a Greek tragedy about the decline of the American working class, the fourth is about the collapse of the school system, and the fifth is about the auto-cannibalism of American journalism. And over the course of the five seasons, the drug narrative is one in which relatively sympathetic and legible mob bosses are replaced by Marlo Stanfield, a character who is not so much evil as empty, an illegible cipher. If there’s one thing that unites the show as a whole, in other words, it’s the sense that history has gone into reverse: progress has become regression.

In contrast, therefore, to the ways that the symbolic vocabularies of social realism and American naturalism emphasize incorporation as the dilemma of capitalist modernity – critiquing capitalism to the extent that they do only by reference to its inevitability – the crisis of a late-capitalist urban center like Baltimore is a product of neo-liberal contraction, the experience of having been incorporated but then abandoned, with a historical telos defined less by expansion and progress than by contraction and loss. It is, in other words, something more like what James Ferguson has illustrated in the Zambian copper-belt, after the collapse of copper prices in the seventies reduced the countries GDP from … : the experience of having been incorporated but then abandoned. As Ferguson put it, “This is modernization through the looking glass, where modernity is the object of nostalgic reverie, and ‘backwardness’ the anticipated (or dreaded) future.”

As in post-collapse Zambia, The Wire shows us the dream of modernity indefinitely deferred, a city with an addiction to industrial civilization but deprived of its supply, experiencing not the “growing pains” of modernization but the symptoms of withdrawal. And because the problems of Baltimore under neo-liberalism are the mirror-image of Riis’ New York, Sinclair’s Chicago, or Dickens’ London, The Wire not only requires a different kind of generic setting, but the generic forms and narratives of an early era of optimism and capitalist expansion remain as, themselves, figures of nostalgic loss. In the fifth season, for example, The Baltimore Sun represents a Jacob Riis-ian desire to shine the bright light of civilization into society’s dark corners, but its a thing that (as Simon, former Sun reporter  has repeatedly emphasized) The Wire both aspires to do itself and an aspiration which it shows to fail in practice. “The Dickensian aspect,” in fact, becomes a shorthand for the show’s own aspirations and for the manner in which that aspiration has become a tragically farcical (and politically impotent) version of itself, appropriated by the very institutional forces which it was meant to challenge.

Such generic markers, in other words, represent a light that has failed and critique its failure, persisting within the show as a sense of nostalgia for the loss of that hope, and embedded – I argue — in a different generic structure, that of the Western. After all, western iconography is absolutely omnipresent if you’re looking for it (and I have been): most of the show takes place quite literally in the city’s “Western district” for example, and the police constantly use that idiomatic reportoire. Kima Greggs refers to “law men in the canyon,” for example, or Daniels tells his people he doesn’t want any cowboy shit, and then orders them to mount up. The railroad tracks where McNulty and Bunk go to drink figures the inevitability of fate in a narrative homage to Westerns like Iron Horse, High Noon, or 3:10 to Yuma. And in writing Omar, the show’s most charismatic and popular character, Simon and company practically out-Leone Leone in blocking, shooting, and editing his various robberies and gun battles.

While Dickens or Upton Sinclair chart history by a remorseless advance of progress, the Western, by contrast, is not only structured by the deconstruction of progress, but it makes the regression into primitivism the central drama of Americanization. Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “Frontier thesis,” after all, placed the idea of the frontier at the center of American civilization only by announcing that the frontier was now closed (making the future of American development a function of the fact that its formative period was over), and left room for the American frontier narrative to continue into the future by imagining future spaces opening up where Americans could continue to regress. In a particular sense, this is a paradox: when Huck Finn lights out for the territories (to escape being civilized by Aunt Sally) he is also growing up: he matures, paradoxically, by running away from adulthood, only the first of many Western cowboys in American pop culture who woulod do so.

The Western, in other words, does something that the the generic narratives of social realism and naturalism cannot: by incorporating the idea of progress by reference to its loss, it creates space between narratives of maturation and progress which are to be critiqued (that represented by the advance of predatory capitalism, for example) and the idea of modernity represented by the desires of those who have been excluded from it. Aunt Sally’s hypocrisy, after all, is very different from the mother whose absence structures Huck Finn’s entire narrative, just as the modernity represented by the hopes and aspirations of Zambia at the height of its expectations of modernity have to be distinguished from the modernity of the predatory capitalism which manipulates commodity prices to maximize profit.

The Wire, I argue, uses the Western in exactly this sense: by reproducing the idea of America as an object of nostalgic loss, its faith in the coherance of those ideals – and its assertion of their continuing viability – gets hidden in plain sight. And because it mediates its ambivalence towards American modernity via figures who either are excluded or escape from it, the Western is actually quite well suited for the problem space of postmodern Baltimore, and for the question of what kind of freedom neo-liberal conditions represent. “Neo-liberalism,” after all, is less a concrete set of political and economic ideologies than it is the expression of long held free market orthodoxy during a period of economic decline; as such, the problem cannot be how to get rid of “neo-liberalism” as such, but how to adapt to the conditions which it describes. After all, if the predicament of neo-liberalism is the extent to which the public safety net has been hollowed out, leaving ordinary people isolated and vulnerable in the face of predatory corporate structures, the flip-side of our historical moment is the possibility that new social structures will fill the vacuum left by those once-powerful public institutions. James Ferguson, for example, has more recently been only one of a variety of Africanists who have noted that while organizations like the IMF and the World Bank have effectively eviscerated “the African state,” to the extent that it can be generalized, the vacuum that has been created has been filled far less by global capital centered in New York, London, or Paris, than by a variety of more locally based and patronage based quasi-capitalist networks; if not necessarily better, at least fundamentally different.

The Wire, I think, envisions something similar, and in illustrating why, I want to add some complexity to the David Simon straw-figure I’ve started off with. For one thing, it’s worth noting not only that Simon gave his talk after the show was over, but that most of the publicity the show has gotten really only began after the fourth season. The Wire only became “the best show on television” after four years of low ratings. I point this out because just as  the title of Simon’s talk was structured by a loss of hope which is still there as a trace of its absence – “The Audacity of Despair” after all, tropes on Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” – his talk was also permeated by a sense that “it could have worked!” and that things could have been, should have been different. He repeatedly spoke of admiring good police work and his deep faith in good journalism was on display; at one point, he actually said that while he hated institutions, he respected professionals, and after describing a variety of misdeeds by public and corporate offenders, he told us that “every institution behaves this way, because journalism has been eviscerated.” One of the things that Simon has been most angry about, in fact, is that The Wire itself (like American journalism more generally) has failed to be a source of change in Baltimore, but the hope that structures that frustration is still palpably visible. In contrast to the sinister “institution,” in other words, “professionalism” emerges as a locus of possibility.

If one goes back to the very beginning of the show, the DVD commentary in the very first episode shows us a David Simon who is much less pessimistic and much more careful in not foreclosing what the show does and does not proclaim about the future. In his words, the show is “about how we live together and it’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals and how regardless of what you are committed to, cop, longshoreman, drug dealer, politician, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.”

But what does it mean to “commit” to an institution? Where does one draw the line between “professionalism” and “institutionalization”? While I want to flag this distinction as a hopeful possibility which Simon’s idiom struggles to open up, saying so only begs the question I want now to ask: how does the show, in practice, portray and formalize the distinction which it imagines in theory?

It does so, I argue, through Barack Obama’s favorite character on The Wire, Omar Little. For one thing, Omar is not only at the show’s narrative heart in a particular (and not inconsiderable) affective sense (as the only character who seems able to live outside the system),[1] he is also equally anomalous within its narrative structure. As George Pelecanous says (dvd commentary 5:6), the writers constructed the show’s narrative by first blocked out a “scene-by-scene diagram of the episode. We start by putting cards on a board, and you have different color cards for the police, the drug dealers, Omar, the educators, that kind of thing, the kids.” In other words, each narrative had to be first distinguished from every other narrative – and part of The Wire’s genius is the art with which it integrates these distinct narratives into a single viewing experience –  except that every narrative but Omar’s was named by the institutional structure which defined its parameters. Omar, in other words, is not only the show’s single example of a character who lives outside the bounds of institutional purview, his story is the single narrative defined not by an institution (as McNulty’s story, for example, is enfolded into the police) but by his name.

In a certain sense, Omar represents the concrete realization of a certain strain of Western narrative, the idea that the individual can step out of society and make his own destiny, narrate his own story in opposition to the institutional forces of  society.  And there’s a moment in one of the dvd commentaries from season three, which illustrates the terms through which this fantasy gets articulated. The writer – Pelecanous again – is pointing out winks to Sergeo Leone westerns in the way the gun-battle between Omar and Brother Mouzone is framed, and he mentions that Omar is “Like McNulty, who doesn’t fit anywhere, not even in the institution of marriage.”

This was kind of a light bulb moment for me, because the idea that the word “institution” would apply, say, to both the Baltimore Police Department and “Marriage” both radically stretches the term, and is symptomatic of a certain disconnect in our public discourse (which a particular version of the American cowboy mythology often aids and abets): since almost every cowboy in the cinematic canon can only live free on the range to the extent that he escapes from both the clutches of civilizing institutions and domestic life more generally, both are quite often embodied, as in Huckleberry Finn, in the same feminine figure.Thus Omar must be gay precisely because he’s a cowboy: because he doesn’t cow-tow to society, and lives according to his own code (making his own law by robbing the drug-dealers he has apparently judged to be bare-life), Omar’s homosexuality is a natural expression of the Western’s conflation of capitalist industrial society and the a feminized domestic sphere, neither of which (as Stringer Bell notes) Omar has any “use” for[2].

Homosexuality, in other words, emerges to figure a kind of professionalism without production, and a kind of labor detached from the economy of use which has, in Baltimore, run aground. Just as the Western serves – in part – to dramatize the rejection of the conspicuous consumption of bourgeois society, so too does the basically “non-productive” nature of homosexual sex serve to figure the manner in which a Fordist mode of production has, in its collapse, left behind a vacuum to be filled by an affective economy that proceeds from a fundamentally different basis: instead of social networks being a function of the imperative to produce (as the Stevedore’s union, for example, derives social space from the spaces of shared Fordist labor), a post-fordist economy’s presumption of the diminished importance of production means that different affective economies become, themselves, the basis of subsistance and reproduction.

In short, in place of social organization in service of production, The Wire illustrates the increasing centrality of informal client-patron relationships in organizing the life-ways of “off the map” Baltimore, a shift in orientation which Omar’s narrative (and economic position) nicely figures: he evades the Barksdales because he is at the center of his own economy (distributing drugs and money to his neighbors and lovers), and one which neither the Barksdales nor the police can perceive or penetrate. The superior epistemological position he derives from it not only allows him to spy on everyone, it makes his a kind of over-narrative, above and beyond the others, his apparent omnipotence a reflection of the failures and limitations which structure the others.

In this sense, while the most simplistic reading of the show is as a blanket rejection of the institution as institution – and a blanket celebration of the maverick that’s almost Palinesque in its vacuousness – I want to return to the measured embrace of ambiguity in Simon’s original commentary from season one, and read it through the ultimate failure of Omar, his final, apparently senseless death in season five. When Simon speaks about “how we live together” and “how institutions have an effect on individuals” and “how…you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to,” I want to first re-read these as questions, not answers. After all, the word “commitment” can signify either a bond of love or the incarceration of someone deemed by society to be a mental or moral defective, and it seems to me that show works very hard to think about and portray the complexity of these modes of attachment and the ways they bleed into each other.

Yet Omar’s undoing turns out to be precisely the extent to which he does not live “together” with anyone. Throughout most of the show, Omar has been a character without apparent limitation; if he is occasionally shot or incarcerated, such moments only achieve narrative poignancy in reference to the show’s underlying sense of his epic invincibility. But in being laid low by a child – as we have seen him grow old before our eyes, reduced to walking with the aid of a crutch – we see the tragedy of those who do not reproduce, those who do not find a way to produce – somehow – a form of social support for their old age (thus, the importance of Kima’s adopted son). When deprived of his own ability to play the patron – profligately wasting the drugs he could have transformed into social capital – Omar is economically retired, but lacks anyone to take care of him, and so dies, alone. In fact, when Omar’s own place in the grand scheme of things is taken by Michael, it is significant that the show has so carefully illustrated this not to be a passing of the torch: Michael not only has legitimate fears that Omar will kill him if he recognizes him, but, in calling Michael “Sweet pea,” Omar inadvertantly steps into the narrative role that was played by Micahel’s step-father who molests him. Any relationship between them, in other words, is fraught with danger.

In contrast to Omar – known as the “dick-suck” throughout – the show uses the idea of “suction” to illustrate the kinds of social bonds which Omar constitutively lacks. The term absolutely pervades season one, but what’s interesting about it is that it signifies a two-way connection between superior and subordinate, that it’s a patron-client relationship in which both sides are (albeit unequally) pulled together. In sharp contrast to Capital’s preference for temporary labor – valued less for its productive power than for the ease with which it can be fired – “suction” represents the bonds formed by ongoing professional interaction and reciprocity, the unspendable social capital accumulated within a subterranean economy of affect.

We first learn the term, for example, in reference to a client who must placate his patron by taking care of his patron’s son-in-law, which he does because he expects a very specific form of compensation down the road. Yet the point is that favors are not exchanged as economic transactions – in which the exchange ends the alliance – but as a production of an ongoing relationship of mutual implication. “Suction,” in other words, is a relationship because it’s also a compact, but the alliance between a stronger and a weaker party nevertheless binds them together going forward, even if the patron loses his power to reward feality. Precisely because Omar has lost that form of social capital, he cannot survive into retiurement as other fallen patrons (Burrell, for example) are painstakingly shown how to do.

In this sense, while season five illustrates the possibilities that reproduction (as a function of built social networks) offers for overcoming abandonment, season one carefully illustrates the same point by reference to the detail’s penetration of the Barksdale crew: the drug syndicate falls, after all, precisely because it treats its members as disposable (and thereby alienates them and makes them vulnerable to being flipped by the police) while it is built into the logic of the police department that a patron would much rather put a bad client on the shelf than actually cut them loose. In contrast to the Barksdale’s crews pretentions to be a family, it is the police department that takes care of its own.

The Wire is therefore a Western only via a careful inversion of its terms, a ultimate rejection of Omar’s myth of self-sufficiency in favor, ultimately, of the reformed McNulty we see at the show’s conclusion. While the Western genre tends to strategically elide the difference between family and capitalism in order to produce an escapist straw man of “the institution,” The Wire (especially in the first season) conflates the terms towards a different end: an ambition to transform “the institution” into something more like the comittment of familial bonds, as when McNulty finally learns to live within his two families.

It’s worth pointing out, in this sense, that the show ends on a note of hope precisely to the limited extent that the Baltimore Police Department becomes like a family, significantly, through affective bonds figured by homoeroticism. McNulty is told by Beadie, his last chance for a hetero-family, that “the people at the bar” won’t be at his wake when his time comes, that the only people who will remember you are family, and a few people who are as good as family. Yet when McNulty retires, his department stages a wake for him and the entire police department is there. Beadie, pointedly is not present, and when they try to force Lester Freamon, “his partner in crime” to lie down on the pool table with him – with all the homoerotic banter that has characterized every inch of professional relations in the show up to that point[3] – the analogy is clear: the “institution” might be the enemy, the show argues, but only to the extent that it has not been remade from the inside, by a “professionalism” that stands in for love, and by a homosocial love that hides in plain sight as homophobic banter that is, nevertheless, exactly what it seems to be.

The show is not optimistic about this possibility, of course: season five argues that we are moving in the opposite direction, that the brutal managerial dictum “make more with less” is transforming the communal ethos of the BPD into a squabbling mess, just as it simultaneously condemns the Baltimore Sun for printing fictions instead of journalism. The new police commissioner is Valchek, by far the least competent police we’ve seen (and the most senselessly nepotistic and spiteful), just  the various good reporters at the Sun are being pushed out to pasture (as was Simon himself). But what many critics have identified as the final season’s weak point – its faith in journalism, which seems to stand in stark contrast to so much of the series’ cynicism – is, I think, precisely what makes it work: we describe what we’ve lost – and structure our nostalgia – by reference to the things we are working to rebuild. In The Wire, despair isn’t the absence of hope, it’s the presumption of it.


[1] Simon, for example, mentioned that while the show was structured by Greek tragedy (a point he makes at greater length in the Hornby interview), such tragedies need heroes who go down in flames fighting; as he put it, “You need a couple characters like that or the show is unwatchable.”

[2] Specifically: “now that he out of prison, I hear he has even less use for pussy”

[3] In addition, too, it’s significant that the drug crew’s homophobia figures their inability to produce long-term attachments through their work: their constant fear of being thought a bitch figures their inability to allow themselves to engage in two-way relations of reciprocity, with significant exceptions (Stringer and Avon together, for example, are untouchable; it is only when they break apart that they become vulnerable)